Not many South Africans outside the country’s passionate surfing community would have heard of Bianca Buitendag prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But with each passing round of the inaugural surfing competition at the showpiece event, the 27-year-old crept into the hearts and minds of those back home who were excitedly monitoring her progress on television in the early hours of the morning.
After her stunning win in round three over Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore, a seven-time world champion and one of surfing’s all-time greats, 17th-seeded Buitendag continued to slay giants en route to the final. She eliminated higher-ranked Yolanda Hopkins of Portugal in the quarterfinals and the No. 2 seed, Caroline Marks, of the United States in the semis.
She eventually succumbed in the final to four-time world champion Carissa Moore of America, the competition’s top seed. In addition to winning Team South Africa’s second silver medal on day four of the Olympics, after Tatjana Schoenmaker finished second in the women’s 100m breaststroke, Buitendag can also claim much of the credit for cultivating a new army of surfing fans.
Because of her stunning performances at Tsurigasaki beach, about 65km from Tokyo, many more South Africans are now familiar with the terminology and scoring system of surfing, one of four new events introduced at the Olympics along with skateboarding, sport climbing and karate.
“I was already just so proud to be representing South Africa and having the opportunity to come to the Olympics. With it being the first time for the sport at the Olympics, it was a huge moment. I didn’t expect much and just counted it all as a gain starting from round one,” says Buitendag.
She adds that her belief that something might be cooking started with her stunning elimination of Gilmore. “She’s a seven-time world champion and the most decorated surfer of all time, so obviously the moment was huge. With the ocean anything is possible. With the help of my coach Greg Emslie, we made a good call tactically and it turned out well. But as in life, you climb one mountain just to face the next one.”
‘Huge for the sport’
An elated Bongani Xulu, the vice-president of Surfing South Africa, hopes Buitendag’s silver medal will be the launch pad for bigger things. “This achievement by Bianca is huge for the sport in South Africa, especially with surfing making its debut at the Olympics.
“Surfing is a sport that was never taken seriously in this country. Many have previously dismissed surfers as carefree beach bums, but this achievement has really raised the profile of our sport. It has shown its value as a sport and Bianca’s silver has provided aspirational surfers with the motivation to show how far they can go.”
While she didn’t feature in the medal predictions of most pundits, Xulu says he was not surprised by Buitendag’s ascent to the final. “She’s very experienced and has competed against the world’s best during her time on the world circuit. It’s also great that she comes from Victoria Bay on the Garden Route, because it shows that you don’t have to come from one of the major centres like Durban or Cape Town to make it big in surfing.”
Buitendag is hopeful her treasured silver medal will inspire the next generation to take up the sport. “I hope to see more girls in the water when I’m paddling out.
“I’ve already seen a major difference, so I’m proud of that. It proves to everyone that anything is possible and that one should not bother about the expectations of others, whether in sport or life in general.”
Although the Covid-19 lockdown restricted her preparation time on the waves, Buitendag says the one-year postponement of the Olympics gave her valuable leeway to prepare more fully for the global showpiece.
“The postponement definitely helped. It gave me 12 months of foundational preparation, something we never have because of our busy event schedule on the world circuit.
“I had a back problem a few years ago and I started working with a biokineticist at Wings Elite Fitness in George. I’ve been working with him three times a week for the past two years. It’s something I’d never done before, but it was worth it because I knew my fitness had to be at its peak to be able to compete at this level.”
It was fortuitous that Buitendag, who was born in Johannesburg, spent her formative years in the coastal town of Strand, 40km southeast of Cape Town. Living within walking distance of the Indian Ocean, it was here that her almost daily trips to the beach nurtured her love for the ocean.
With the encouragement of her late father Colin, a former provincial surfer, she learned to surf at the age of eight with brothers Sven and Daniel. If Strand was good for surfing, the family’s move in 2005 – when she was 12 – to Victoria Bay, a quiet and picturesque cove hidden off the N2 just outside the Southern Cape town of George, was heaven.
Her most treasured memories are waking up early to explore the surrounding coast with her father and brothers.
A trip with her parents to Australia in 2007 saw Buitendag, then 14, take her first steps on what was to become a successful career on the world circuit. Keen to learn about their daughter’s surfing abilities, her parents organised an all-day session with internationally renowned surfing coach Martin Dunn at his training camp in Old Bar, New South Wales.
The assessment from Dunn, regarded as the godfather of surf coaching, was glowing enough for the Buitendags to invest in their daughter’s fledgling career. They were assured she had the potential to surf professionally.
She participated in a qualifying series at the age of 15 to get her wheels on the tracks. At 19, she finished No. 2 on the qualifying series after two big wins in Peru and the Azores, paving the way for her to join the Championship Tour in 2013.
But tragedy struck in March 2015 when her father died. Returning home for the funeral from France, where she had been living, helped strengthen her mental resolve. The international contests were a welcome distraction and the pleasure gained from riding the waves slowly healed her pain.
She hit the form of her life in 2017, finishing as runner-up in Rio, Fiji and California on the way to an all-time high world number No. 4 finish. Unfortunately, the momentum tailed off as she dropped to No. 12 the next year, eventually slipping to No. 26 in 2019.
Putting down roots
Despite the setbacks, Buitendag secured Olympic qualification with her performances at the 2019 International Surfing Association World Surfing Games in Miyazaki, Japan.
Winning an Olympic silver for her country proved the perfect way for Buitendag to bow out. “The Olympics was my last event as a professional. I’ve had a great ride and it’s the perfect way to finish off my career. There are 13 girls on the world tour and only three of them are over the age of 30. I’ve had plenty of travelling through airports and living out of suitcases so that it’s time now to put the roots down.”
On her return home, she will be focusing her energies on working with Life Community Services, a George-based Christian non-governmental organisation that works with vulnerable and orphaned children in the area.
“We are busy constructing a primary school that’s due to be completed by the end of next year. I’m super excited to be involved and to somehow use my platform for their benefit.”
While she’s giving up competitive surfing, Buitendag won’t be lost to the job that’s consumed her for the past 14 years. “I hope to give to the sport and will certainly be cheerleading any young up-and-coming surfers from South Africa.”